Every couple of months at the Hammer, a group of older women from a Brandeis Alumni group come for a tour and lunch in the museum cafe. I had the pleasure of touring this group the last time they came, through the show “Second Nature.” The show, which is coming down very shortly, consists of a fantastic collection of sculpture from the last 10 years (mostly by Los Angeles-based or educated young artists) donated by media exec Dean Valentine to the Hammer’s contemporary collection. The varied pieces within it, though having some relationship to one another in their generational response to object making, are quite diverse, and challenging in terms of an overarching tour.
The Brandeis women, of a clearly different generation than these artists (who included Edgar Arceneaux, Sterling Ruby, Ruby Neri, Stephen G. Rhoades, Martin Kersels, Paul Sietsema, and Nathan Mabry among others), were resistant to art in these forms, and had much to say. One protested the “cerebral” nature of conceptual or post-conceptual art, a refrain I hear frequently as a docent. “These artists need to get out of their heads and into their hearts,” she admonished. Others just shook their heads disapprovingly when I introduced Sterling Ruby’s monumental “Stalamite: Recondite Burning,” an obelisk-like organic coagulation of melted plastic, enormous and stunning in its expressionism.
As their guide, I tried my best to give context for the work they were seeing, to try to lay the groundwork that these artists were not attempting to represent or even necessarily “express themselves” in the vague, cliched sense, but were posing a question or conceptual critique – about the larger framework in which they were making art, about art and object-making in a digital age, about media in general. This leap is still nearly impossible for many art viewers of a certain generation. They are interested (they are there, after all) but they don’t get it, and they become frustrated that they don’t get it.
I think those of us who live and breathe contemporary art forget this, quite often. We like preaching to the converted, and the divide between those who “get it” and those who don’t remains difficult to hurdle. Building access to contemporary art and learning to appreciate good contemporary art takes time. It’s like trying to explain the taste of a good apple versus a bad apple when the person you are talking to has never tasted an apple before…and not only that, is absolutely resistant to apples in general. I was more than thrilled when at the end of the tour, one of the women said, “Well, for art we didn’t like that much, we sure did talk about it a lot.” I felt like hugging her – yes, I wanted to say, yes, that’s the whole point.
Which brings me to the space for museum education – a really fascinating and dynamic space that embodies all sorts of interesting conflicts, like the Brandeis group experience described above. Museum education departments are morphing beyond the docent-training, curriculum-building, K-12 oriented places they once were, where kids fingerpaint after learning about Impressionism. These departments are increasingly the incubators for social practice…for like the artists who are so interested in problem-solving and spatial and social context, museum educators have long had to deal with both art and its public context. Traditional curators are sometimes a bit baffled by social practice, especially as it becomes less and less object-based – a couple of curators have admitted to me that they don’t feel they have the skill set to “judge” good or bad social practices (apples to oranges, again). But museum educators are used to integrating publics with pedagogy and art historical context – they are programmers and teachers and problem-solvers. Obviously not all educators are equipped to really explore these liminal social spaces, preferring to confine themselves to lesson plans and traditional notions of art education – but the space is there. Educators like Eungie Joo of the New Museum and her fantastically interdisciplinary “Museum as Hub” program, or Sarah Schultz of the Walker, are consistently breaking new ground in terms of curatorial and educational collaboration, supporting social practice, pushing the boundaries of arts education, and creating spaces to incubate new pedagogical ideas. It is no surprise that among the three LA art institutions interested in partnering with the Watts House Project, all three are doing so through their education departments.
Clearly I’m a bit of a booster, being a museum educator myself, but I find deep connections forming between these departments and the art practices I am so interested in, and I am excited to see what innovative programs arise from those interstices.